When I read over the weekend that Thomas Kinkaide had died at the age of 54, I immediately thought of Susan Orlean’s 2001 profile of the painter, who rejected critical opinion of his work as schmaltzy and sold his work as part of the extremely lucrative collectibles market. Orlean points out of Kinkaide’s life story, in which he grew up poor and fatherless, left a Christian school for a secular art school before having a powerful conversion experience that lead him to dedicate himself to optimism in art, “It’s as good a story as you could hope for,” she wrote, “if you want to make a point about perseverance and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and appreciating life’s bounty; even the bad parts of the story are good, because it’s easier not to begrudge Kinkade his fortune when you are reminded that he was a poor kid who had to struggle, who rejected the smarty-pants liberal establishment to follow his heart, and who is proud of having earned his way into the ultimate American aristocracy of successful entrepreneurs.”
Lots of folks have jumped on the subsequent pieces about Kinkaide that suggested the real story was less than flattering, involving everything from sexual harassment, to defraudment of the franchisees who ran Kinkaide’s galleries, to public urination. While I think it’s fine to debunk the narrative, it’s also worth getting at precisely why that narrative, and Kinkaide’s paintings, were so compelling to so many people, especially if you get frustrated with what seems like the perpetual American default to simplistic popular culture when more complex and interesting alternatives are available. Orlean wrote:
“I created a system of marketing compatible with American art,” Kinkade said to me recently. “I believe in ‘aspire to’ art. I want my work to be available but not common. I want it to be a dignified component of everyday life. It’s good to dream about things. It’s like dreaming of owning a Rolex ~n instead, you dream about owning a seventy-five-thousand-dollar print.” In fact, a lot of limited- edition art is about dreaming; so many of the paintings portray wistful images of a noble and romantic past that never was, or the anti-intellectual innocence of fairies and animals, or mythical heroes who can never fail and never fade…
“I have this certain ability to have in my mind an image that means something to real people,” he said, sitting on a sofa across the room from the easels. “The No. 1 quote critics give me is ‘Thom, your work is irrelevant.’ Now, that’s a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here’s the point: My art is relevant because it’s relevant to ten million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. Because I’m relevant to real people.” He sat up and started to laugh. “I remember that quote, man! It was a great quote! It was ‘The Louvre is full of dead pictures by dead artists.’ And you know, that’s the dead art we don’t want anything to do with!” He laughed again and slapped his thighs. “We’re the art of life, man! We’re bringing the life back to art!”
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, whether it’s an old-fashioned fantasy of a multi-ethnic army coming to rescue us from the newfangled threat of giant robots, or the promise of escape to a non-existent bucolic paradise. When it comes to pop culture, the comfortable are deeply averse to being disturbed. It’s the rare pop culture engine that can get huge numbers of people voluntarily invested in something that will be profoundly disruptive. That’s not a reason to think less of people who like Thomas Kinkaide, or Two and a Half Men—just to think harder about how we can build those engines, and to recognize the magnitude of the challenge.